The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Third World Kroger” by Greg Schreur

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gregSome stories only get better—the more you read, the more you see. Greg Schreur’s opening lines in “Third World Kroger” set catastrophe front and center: “My wife needs more flour for another cake. Since our son Michael was taken and killed about six months ago, she bakes a lot of them.”

That matter-of-fact narrative voice and the jarring connection, somehow, between baking cakes and a murdered child signal a world gone so deeply wrong it is incomprehensible. Yet it is one of Schreur’s gifts that he can, in just these lines and the few that follow, make his characters so appealing we want to know more. Yes, they are deranged: she’s baking cakes and he’s usually in the basement watching reruns of “Charlie’s Angels” and fixating on germs. But I’d be crazy too if one of my kids was murdered. By starting with inconsolable loss flatly stated, Schreur’s story balances—like a luminous, fragile egg on days of equinox—grief and absurdity, obsession and sense, madness and love, and moments of qualified, uncertain survival (but what kind, on what terms?)

In terms of plot, Schreur deftly offers up not one but two stories that, only at the end, fold together. The first, in the present tense, recounts the errand to buy flour. The second, in the past tense, is about what happened to Michael. Driven by memories that crowd and fill every pause and turn of the narrator’s thoughts, the second story dominates, taking up all the air. When the narrator steps into the grocery’s men’s room, he remembers Michael at two, in this same place with his dad and not knowing what pink urinal cakes were. Remembering the flour, he thinks of his wife’s grief and then Michael again, at four, so good on a trip to the mall that the narrator buys him a treat and looks away “for maybe a minute tops”—the minute Michael is snatched. “I searched everywhere, screamed his name, begged complete strangers to find him, sobbed to a police officer, and never let go of the elephant ear I still knew he would enjoy.” Meanwhile, alongside this incurable trouble, the grocery errand turns surreal in the men’s room when someone hurls human waste.

Bringing these two wildly different stories together, pulling us ever deeper into this unnamed father’s world and making readers care, is Schreur’s astonishing command of voice and detail. The first-person narrative voice is honest, convincing even when absurdly defensive, even almost funny. In the men’s room, he refuses to wash his hands because “I guarantee the sink has more germs than my crotch.” Every detail works overtime. That germ phobia? In a world where a desperate father struggles to reconcile himself to his son’s death, it blossoms, in the men’s room, from obsession into a philosophy of cosmic despair that might, somehow, explain why terrible things happen: “Or maybe it’s just the problem of human waste. Where there are humans, there’s waste. Everywhere we go, we all just leave our stains behind” This is a stand-up guy in a collapsing personal world who doesn’t pull punches. He makes sense even if he’s nuts.

I also admire the way Schreur moves and prods action through dialogue. When the narrator grasps that the man in the men’s room is disabled and helpless, he seeks help. A woman at Customer Service says the man lives at a nearby mental institution, but adds: “Those retards wander around the store until somebody comes and takes them back.” Her words make the narrator step up. Minutes later, driving the man home, the narrator tries to explain things to him, using the same words he’d used to explain things to two-year-old Michael. Then he makes a few more plans, about his shoes, his family, and what he’ll tell his wife. “And if she asks what happened to my old shoes, I’ll tell her it was simply time for a change.”

Survival stories interest me because the world can be a wicked, wicked place and bad stuff leaves scars. If you sometimes wonder how people go on living—hell, how they go on breathing—after the unthinkable happens, and if you like writing that doesn’t talk down but trusts you to understand, Schreur’s “Third World Kroger” is in the current issue of Glimmer Train, Winter 2015, Issue 92. His writing is swift and exact, the story deeply humane. On the third read, I choked up—no one saw, I’ll deny it tomorrow, but yes. It’s that good.